Tuesday, September 19

Selfish, Emojis, and the End of Civilization

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Much in the style of an old man yelling at neighborhood urchins to get off his lawn, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian has decided that the young, hip, and cool trend of using emojis in text and online conversations is “plainly a step back” in human progress. Apparently since the Egyptians with their hieroglyphs never wrote a massive epic like the Greek Iliad, they were obviously stunted by their pictorial language. As he says with all the smugness he can muster “Speak Emoji if you want. I’ll stick with the language of Shakespeare.”

In other news, Kim Kardashian West’s book of selfies, Selfish, has hit bookstore shelves (or like Amazon?) and every human with a laptop has voiced some opinion on it. It’s a fairly polarized conversation — either you’re completely against it and are willing to make cheap jabs (and lame jokes) to prove your point or you’re hailing it as an ‘outside artist endeavor’ on par with self-portraits painted by Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh. There is no middle ground.

It is the nature of older people to feel threatened by new things. It is such an overt part of our society that there is even a cliché to back it up — ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ With the advent of email, many decried the loss of letter sending. With texting, people said we would forget how to make phone calls. There is always a pull back from the guardians of nostalgia to obsolete technology, which is funny since you don’t see farmers willing to trade their tractors for cattle-pulled tillers.

In the realm of communication, apparently everything is sacred when it’s no longer completely necessary. Books over e-Readers. Letters over email. Face-to-face conversations over phone calls. Phone calls over texting. Texting over emojis. There is no end to the irritated legions of old people yelling into the void.

It’s the same with selfies. Many older internet users, and the few non-hip younger ones, consider selfies self-indulgent, self-centered, and vapid. Few people make the connection that they are often calling out teenage girls for this, villainizing them over and over for reveling in their own beauty and confidence. And in the age-old pattern of the internet, rather than simply scroll past the pouting, unedited shots, these gatekeepers feel the need to comment, to blast an entire generation, and to make news stories out of children.

Kim K’s book is further fuel on a slow-burning fire — here again is a sign of the end of days. A woman publishing a book full of pictures of herself marks the end of art just as emojis are the end of language. Add to that the fact that Kim Kardashian West is a reality TV star who rocketed to fame because of a sex tape, and the collective eye roll for Selfish is so big it’s almost audible.

These pictures are ephemeral and yet timeless. They are, in the end, just photos and hold all the same significance as other photography. They reveal just as much about the human condition as anything else and yet they are a point of derision or alternatively a sycophantic sermon about the need to love ourselves.

Everything produced by society has a place within it. Everything, in that way, is progress. Emojis will never replace language, and often they are utilized to amplify language or add a signature tone. Selfies will never replace photography or art, they will just add to the catalog of what is acceptable and pleasurable to view. The fear so many internet users have regarding these two forms is baseless, as any academic could tell you.

It wasn’t too long ago that the older generations were irritated and critical of the way teenage girls supplemented their conversations with the overuse of the word “like.” And it was proved recently by linguists that using phrases like “like,” “you know,” and “I mean” actually demonstrate thoughtfulness and conscientiousness. Changes and adaptions in language, communication, and self-expression are often criticized before they are accepted and understood. Remember, Andy Warhol was a hack who mass-produced his art. The Beatles were just a boy band who were loved and adored by teenage girls before they were ushered into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. This is not a new story in our society.

But what exactly allows people who are arguably outside the fashion, living on the edges of the internet, to criticize the norms? Why do they get so much traction and even publication in reputable newspapers? It’s probably because, firstly, teenagers and teenage girls in particular are very easy targets. They are often made fun of despite being the tastemakers and some of the largest consumers in our economy. Whether it be Twilight or Uggs, whatever teenage girls like is fair game for anyone in the mood to criticize. Secondly, there are enough angry older people and people looking to ingratiate themselves on the internet for criticism to be validated and propagated.

Basically, it’s easy to write a scathing report about how emojis are harkening the end of civilization as we know it. It’s harder to consider that maybe young people are driving forward progress and creativity.

So speak the language of Shakespeare if you like. I’ll stick with the pictorial self-expression of the Ancient Egyptians and Van Gogh.

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